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EU to seek sanctions on Belarus airline over migrant arrivals

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EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg on Monday will call for new sanctions on Belarus, amid concern that EU-registered companies are leasing aircraft to the country’s national airline Belavia.

Ireland is the EU’s hub for aircraft leasing, with Irish companies managing more than half the world’s hired aircraft. Some Irish firms continue to lease planes to Belavia, which are used to transport migrants to the EU’s border, three EU diplomats told POLITICO’s Brussels Playbook. The firms argue they are contractually bound to do so.

Several EU countries, particularly those that share a border with Belarus such as Lithuania, Latvia and Poland, as well as Estonia, want to expand sanctions on Belarus to directly target Belavia. This would ban EU companies from doing any business with the national airline. While these countries, supported by Germany, among other countries, want all leasing to end immediately, Ireland wants existing contracts to be protected.

Speaking on his way into Monday’s meeting, Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said Dublin was open to new sanctions. But he added a caveat: “We would also make the distinction between sanctions that would involve no further or future aircraft leasing to Belavia, in contrast to existing contracts that are in place where there are obligations.”

Coveney said he had discussed the issue with Lithuania’s foreign minister a number of times. He said that like other countries, Ireland believes “Belarus is exploiting vulnerable people, bringing migrants into Minsk and then effectively bussing them to the border of the EU, which is putting huge pressure on countries such as Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and so on, and that has to stop. We also have to look out for the human rights of those people.”

Seven migrants have already died on the EU’s borders with Belarus.

Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and Estonia — supported by other countries including Germany — wrote a letter last month calling for the EU to cease leasing aircraft to Belavia. Officials noted that Brussels struck a deal with Baghdad to suspend flights from Iraq to Belarus, but have not yet stopped the provision of aircraft by EU-based companies.

“It beggars belief that Belavia can still rely on aircraft leased from EU companies to pursue its trafficking operations on behalf of the murderous regime in Minsk,” one diplomat said. “This needs to stop. No EU company should be allowed to lease aircraft to a company that engages in human trafficking.”

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